Swimming is a low impact activity that can have some definite benefits for dogs going through a rehab program, or for healthy dogs exercise plans. It can be great for cardiovascular fitness. So why do i often cringe when asked “Should I swim my dog?”
First, we need to establish what “going for a swim” means to each owner. Most dog owners are actually asking if their dogs can retrieve in the water. This usually entails running into the water from the shoreline, then swimming, then running back to the owner, or at least to the water’s edge. Shorelines can be anything from flat and sandy, to rocky and uneven, to slippery algae-covered rocks. So although the actual “swimming” may be beneficial to the pet, the entry and exit of the water could be the worst thing that a pet recovering from an injury could do. Even just the “weekend warrior” pet can be injured running over the uneven terrain and the slippery water entry.
The safest way to prevent injury is to go into the water with your dog until the water is at least up over their elbows and knees. You want to be at a depth where they can stand but that when you throw the toy/stick/ball they immediately go back into a swim. This way you avoid the leaping and the running on any non-ideal terrain. You will have to train this behavior. Some dogs still want to run back to the shore line.
Also, keep in mind how hard sustained swimming can be. If your pet starts to hesitate to bring you the ball or stick, or is panting with his/her tongue out, or going up on the shore and lying down, then please recognize that they need a break and force them to take it. My Duck Toller will take the ball up onto the beach and lie down when she is tired, but if I throw something for my Australian Kelpie, the Toller is up and back into the water in a flash, even if she is really too tired to swim again. I often have to leash her to get her to take the much needed break!
So as you can see, there is no simple answer. Always check with your rehab veterinarian as to whether or not swimming is appropriate for your dog. Make sure you have a clear idea of the guidelines and that you both have the same definition for “swimming”.
Dr. Janis Fisher, DVM, CVA, CCRT, Certified by CoAC
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